Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Turning Coal into Diamonds, or How To Turbo-Charge Your Practice Routine

A study conducted at Duke University of Texas at Austen (see below) uncovered some interesting things about practicing. While raw quantity remains important, the quality of practice can have a dramatic impact on results. Here are the main points the researchers pulled from the study.

Start out slowly
The study reinforces what some of us already know: Slow down if you want to speed up your progress. Then work steadily towards performance tempo.

Play it with feeling
The players who made the best progress adopted a musical approach as soon as possible during the learning process. It may help to play mechanically at first, but as soon as the kinks are worked out, start playing music.

Mindfulness is the single biggest factor
The study found that the students who intensified their focus during the challenging bits did better overall. They remained aware of the parts that presented a challenge, anticipated them, and slowed down and played them more intentionally.

Prepare for and polish the boo-boos
The top students prepared for the boo-boos and they also learned from them. This suggests that, when you encounter a trouble spot, the best reaction is, "Aha, there's something I can work on". Isolate the problem, analyze what might (or did) happen, slow it down and work it through applying mindfulness and musical sensitivity. Seize the mistake as opportunities. It will be time well spent.

It’s Not How Much; It’s How/Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills; Robert A. Duke, The University of Texas at Austin, Amy L. Simmons, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Carla Davis Cash, Texas Tech University, Lubbock. Journal of Research in Music Education Volume 56 Number 4, January 2009 310-321.

For the original report, visit

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"Umm, it's still a bit loud"

It's a well-meaning bit of feedback, and it can be one of the most difficult to accommodate. We musicians are a noisy bunch. Some of us can't get enough of it (I once played with a fellow who said he couldn't sleep unless his ears were ringing). And we drummers are so used to making noise that we've spend virtually no time being quiet.
Aside from practicing low-volume techniques, there are a number of things you can do to help lower the volume when the occasion requires it.

Start with the sticks. Go lighter ... as light as you can stand. If skinny sticks are too much of a turn-off, try maple. Maple is lighter and softer and produces a softer tone. Worn-out maple is quieter still. As for the bass drum, play flat foot and pick up a lambs-wool beater.

Brush up on brushes. There are also brush-like products and 'bundles' available that aim to give you lower volume while providing a variety of tonal options. Besides, playing with brushes is ultra-cool.

Big drums are louder than small drums. The difference can be minor, but a 13 or 14 inch floor tom will definitely put out less sound than a 16 inch one. Maybe a micro-kit would suit your style.

Tune for sensitivity. Gut wrenching low sounds are great, but they require you to hit hard. You want your drums to respond to a light touch. That means tune higher -- and perhaps use thinner heads.

Cymbals are the worst culprit. In general, you want smaller, thinner cymbals. Look for smaller thinner crash cymbals, medium-thin hi-hats, and perhaps a low-volume ride such as a flat ride. Sometimes a broken cymbal works well.

Here's a technical option: Mic your drums. Wha-a-a-a? Place a microphone near your drums so it will pick up the entire band. Feed that into headphones that you control. This will give you a better idea of the front-of-house mix and in real time.

Of course you could just get an electronic set and let the house set the level while you crank up your headphones.

Friday, June 15, 2018


Tessitura! There's a catchy word for you. It refers to the useful pitch range of a musical instrument. In some cases it's fixed, as in a piano -- unless you arrange to have extra keys installed, you get what you get. In wind instruments, tessitura is determined by the instrument, aided by the skill of the player (check out Nils Henning Orsted Pederson at the low end and Henry Red Allen at the top end). A guitar works best in the ‘guitar range’, and while you can play around with other tunings, you can't go more than a few tones either direction. Same with the rest of the string family: too high or too low just doesn't work.

One would think that drums, with their broad tonal range and facility for different tunings, would have an almost unlimited tessitura. They do not. For any drum, there are points at the top and bottom of their range where they just stop producing a quality tone. Tune too high and you lose tone, body and resonance. Tune too low and again, no tone and no resonance ... and no stick response.

A drum's tessitura is determined by shell construction, diameter, depth, weight, and head choice. Lighter (i.e. thinner) drums tend to have a lower and more limited tuning range than heavier drums. A heavier head can be tuned lower than a lighter head. Large drums tune nicely to lower pitches and smaller drums are better at higher tunings. While a 10" tom can be tuned fairly low, below a certain point it will stop working. Same with that 18" floor tom. Tune it too high and it's character will collapse. Higher still and you might break something.

Most drum companies are hip to the tonal range of various drums, hence the wide range of shell sizes on offer. DW goes a step further and inscribes a shell's resonant pitch on the inside the drum. You don't have to tune to that pitch, but it's not a bad starting point.

I tend to tune drums to the upper-middle of their range. I find that tone quality is maximized, as are resonance, punch, projection, and articulation. This tonal range also blends very well with other instruments.

There are lots of ways to tune drums and lots of theories on how to proceed … no wrong answers here. But if you find that a drum just isn't giving you what you want, maybe you're trying to tune it outside its tessi-thingy.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sometimes Less Really Is Less

A local band were doing a worthy rendition of Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb”. The drummer sat at a borrowed 4-piece, 3-cymbal set. As the tune progressed, it was obvious that fills, comping and interpretation lacked the colour and interest of the originals ... no melodic transitions on the toms, no deep rumble from massive floor toms, the same crash tone on every accent. The drummer did a great job of accommodating, but even one or two more sounds would have helped tremendously.

Look at any prog-rock group on stage and you'll see a major real estate development toward the rear. That’s where the drummer/percussionist sets up. Starting with perhaps two bass drums (though not required), the setup includes lots of rack toms, 2-3 minimum and as many as 5 or more. Floor toms may flank the set, 1 or 2 on each side, and perhaps a secondary snare. And flying overhead, a raft of cymbals. And maybe tymps, bells and gongs behind it all.

I've tried it both ways ... and found out that I don't have the discipline for an 8-piece set. But I also don't feel ‘fulfilled’ on a minimalist set. I prefer a fusion set: two mounted toms and one floor tom. The addition of that single tom adds at least a half-dozen tonal combinations that weren't available before.

Cymbals are another area where more can be better. Some of the old jazzers made do with 2 cymbals. But they always chose cymbals that had flexibility. It was common to say every cymbal was a ride cymbal and every cymbal was a crash cymbal. This to me is a musical choice par excellence. I've heard too many extended sets with a plethora of crash cymbals that sound virtually the same.

I guess what I'm leading up to is that your drum set must match your music and your playing style as well as what it is you're trying to accomplish with your playing. If your music calls for melodic toms, then maybe a fusion kit won't provide enough tonal variety. And if you're in a cover band that does top 40 from the ‘50s & ‘60s, then a 12-piece set is not just overkill, it’s just plain wrong.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

"You Can Observe a Lot Just by Watching"

Indeed, as Yogi Berra so wisely pointed out, all it takes to 'observe' is to watch, or in our case, listen and watch. If you're serious about your craft, you probably listen to music all the time. And you listen carefully to how your favourite drummers do their thing. You want to know how they get things done, how they create those sounds. Actually seeing how it's done it can help a lot, and the best way to do this is from a seat near the band stand.

I'd not spent time working on my hands with a coach, so I started working out with a local pipe & drum band. I'd always admired pipe drumming, so I eagerly attended the weekly sessions. This group brought in a world-class pipe drummer, Doug Stronach, for a lesson every other week. As well as following along with the exercises, I watched the doug's hands carefully. You see, this guy was a world champion player, and had studied and worked with champion players for decades, and his hands were about as good as they get. So I concentrated on his hands and tried to make my motions and positioning match him completely. Time well spent!

One thing Buddy Rich could count on was drummers watching him like a hawk. And not just drum students. Even the greats would watch Buddy to find out how he did things. Mel Tormé had this story to share:

"Johnny [Carson] related how, when Buddy was appearing in the south of France, Carson saw drummers Shelley Manne and Bobby Rosengarden standing way off to the side of the stage. "What’re you guys doing, standing over here?” he wanted to know. Shelly looked at him and said, quite seriously, 'We’re watching buddy’s foot'." (as quoted in Mel Tormé’s Traps The Drum Wonder)

And if observing is good enough for Shelly Manne ...

Doug Stronach:

Traps the Drum Wonder, by Mel Tormé
Published by Hal Leonard
ISBN-10: 1888408030
ISBN-13: 978-1888408034

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Why I like Emanuelle Caplette

I love watching drum videos. But there's something about many of them that perplexes me ... especially with many of the “academic” type videos. Some of these people don't seem to be having much fun ... or no fun at all. I know that we need to take our craft seriously, but I’ve seen videos that almost seem like the presenter is in some sort of pain. A few take such a reverent stance that you'd think they were playing in a monastery.

And on the other hand, there’s Ms Caplette. In every one of her videos she seems to be having the time of her life. And there simply is no defence when her enthusiasm hits you full-on. I love it! If I were to create a video, I hope I'd be able to express even a fraction of this kind of joy. Doesn't mean I'm not serious about drums -- at times I'm as serious as a heart attack.

It's Not Rocket Surgery
Or as Cher put it, "We're not discovering a cure for cancer here." Yes, what we do is important in a lot of ways, and we need to take it seriously, but that doesn't require a funereal atmosphere.

No Fun, No Gain
If pain is nature's way of telling you to slow down then 'fun' must be nature's way of saying, "This is good for you”. And I'm very serious about this having fun business. Numerous studies have shown that we learn better and perform better when we're having fun with -- or at least feeling pretty good about -- the task at hand. In my own teaching, I want to see smiles from time to time --  'cuz if it's not fun, it'll show in the results.

Bonus Points
Fun has many benefits. It lowers stress, improves learning and retention, and enables you relax and play better with less effort. You're more receptive to input and your enthusiasm can help build group cohesion. Plus it’s way more fun.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Bobby Hackett Method

When asked if he did anything special to prepare himself for a performance, the great jazz coronet player Bobby Hackett said, "I just go out there and try to do it right."

Hmm ... doesn't seem like an overly difficult job description. We could assume that the cornetist just hoped to make no outright mistakes. But for a musician of his calibre, mistakes are pretty much a non-issue. So what, then, did he mean by do it right?

Deciding what's right can be difficult. The difference between good and not-so-good is often subjective, and the interpretation can be very personal. And doing it right can include knowing what not to play.

Then there are the times when doing what's right isn't the right way to go. I'm sure you've been in a situation where the theoretically correct thing didn't work for that tune. It's also possible to miss opportunities when trying to play something 'by the book'. Playing with correct technique may not suit either. Then it's time to do it wrong, and that can be a great stimulus to creativity and discovery.

Here's the list I use to help me do it right:
  • Be as competent as I can be: Continue to grow musically and never stop learning
  • No mistakes or clunkers: Know the material inside-out
  • Right style, tradition: Assumes I've done my homework
  • Right energy, feel and passion: It has to work for the song and the context
  • No extraneous crap: Always be tasteful
  • Creative: Try to bring something new, fresh
  • 'Busyness' level: I've played too busy and also not busy enough!
A simple and always valid goal is to try to do it 'better than last time'. And if you are keeping all these other things in mind, then you're ready to go!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Know Your Limits

... and then plow past them as hard as you can.

We're not talking about a gambling habit here. If you're serious about drums (and life in general) you'll put some time into identifying both your personal strengths and weaknesses.

Working with our strengths is easy because it's self-rewarding. If you try something new and it works out well, you're rewarded and are therefore more inclined to try it again. Our weaknesses? Well we'd rather not even think about them, or maybe we're more comfortable denying them altogether.

Confronting our weaknesses will often make us stronger. The mere fact that we're tackling the issue can give us confidence and a feeling of competence. Acknowledging and working on a weakness will also help to minimize its impact on our lives and can even open up opportunities and discoveries.

I believe I've mentioned before that I have a poor memory. It's pretty hard to ignore because something or someone will point it out to me just about every day. And so I've worked on various techniques to help me remember, or at least to not lose track quite so badly. For example, I analyze tunes extensively to help me remember them. I chart them, make cue cards and sometimes even transcribe them. These exercises and systems have resulted in some respectable improvements.

Sometimes a simple work-around will get the job done when things just aren't coming together. Having trouble playing fast tempos? Find some stickings and patterns that give you a fast sound with less stress. Can't get your head around some complicated beat? Reduce it to its essential components:  pare it down, eliminate some of the complexity. Have trouble remembering things? Keep a notepad handy. Trouble identifying tunes? Create a database of first lines and keep it on your cell phone.

No matter what 'limit' is giving you trouble, you can probably find a solution. So don't be afraid to acknowledge your stumbling blocks, and then look for creative ways to overcome them.